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Friday, 23 May 2008
The Renaissance squares
Topic: urban issues

I made the mistake of going to the Renaissance Square dog-and-pony show this week. The organizers - the seemingly unbreakable coalition of downtown business interests, county government lickspittles, and engineering and construction firms - did a good job of hiding the event in the inner reaches of the Riverside Convention Center. No signs directed the few attendees to the room. But that turned out to be good for social intercourse: you had to ask directions from passersby in the hallway.

You didn't actually need to get into the room, though, to understand what the project - a perennial shapeshifter now hastily reconfigured to meet funding deadlines - is all about. You only needed to meditate on the convention center itself. Remember when the East Main-South Avenue area was packed with historic buildings and storefronts? And remember when so many of them came tumbling down to make way for a, well, conventional design?

That's exactly what the well-connected downtown crowd wants for East Main and Clinton. Go to the Democrat and Chronicle feature on the new RenSquare plan and see for yourself. The plan is pure Suburban Office Park: a series of off-the-shelf, boring facades, varied at the eastern extremity with a few big windows, and shown up big time by the magnificent Granite Building to the west. (The bus station is hidden in the back, with a platform design that will require buses to back up as they leave the bays. I can't wait to stand there and take in the music and fine aromas of the massed diesels.)

Nothing in any of the RenSquare literature or on the dog-and-pony-show placards refers to green features, intermodality (remember the case made long ago for putting the buses at the train station?), accessibility, or bike-and-pedestrian friendliness. Choose your favorite element from the pro-environmental list - and you won't find it at RenSquare.

When I said some of this to a honcho at the unveiling (and put that veil of shame back on, pronto!), I was asked if I wanted to see downtown continue to deteriorate. This is the rhetorical equivalent of what the RenSquare design team has done: deploying the crassest of clichés to weaken the opposition. They surely must understand that downtown's real friends want an entirely different pattern of redevelopment to unfold: compare the incremental growth and repopulation of the East End, accomplished organically and on a human scale - with, admittedly, some aesthetic clunkers thrown in.

But look for RenSquare honchos to stay on message. If you're not on board with their scheme, you're an enemy of downtown and an impediment to economic revitalization. And don't be so cheeky as to talk about transportation policy or green ideas. What do you think this is, a transit center? And where do you think you are, Copenhagen?

In their relentless campaign to saddle us with an example of old-fashioned, white bread Americana, the RenSquare pushers are leading with a rhetorical cousin of "if you're not with us, you're against us." And make no mistake, in regard to the fine points democratic engagement, they have taken more than a little from the playbook of Rove, Cheney, and Bush.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:47 EDT
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